On June 17, I attended the COVID-delayed swearing-in ceremony for my successor as United States Attorney for the District of Maine, the senior-most federal law enforcement official for the district and state, Darcie N. McElwee.
Things looked bleak around 1:30 p.m., when the heavens opened and produced a torrential downpour of not-quite Biblical proportions, but by 3 p.m., the sky had cleared, the sun had come out, and the show went on.
I walked into the federal courthouse with one of a number of prominent local defense attorneys who had been invited. They were amongst the many dignitaries in attendance, including the governor, present and former state attorneys general, several of Maine’s judges, most of its district attorneys, the dean of the law school, the federal defender, and others.
The ceremony was held in courtroom one. It dates back to the courthouse’s construction in 1911. Large and ornate, it is executed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style with a high, vaulted ceiling, elaborate plaster moldings, a large, dark wooden bench dominating the courtroom, a big jury box, large counsel tables, and a solid bar that separates the well of the court from the gallery. All-in-all, it is an impressive place to hold a ceremony, much less a trial.
Chief Judge Jon Levy opened the proceedings by welcoming everyone, introducing some of the many prominent people present, and providing a brief history of the federal court in Maine which traces back to the earliest days of our constitutional republic. The Reverend Elizabeth Blunt of Trinity Church in New York City described meeting Darcie at Bowdoin, becoming friends, and how Darcie combines justice with compassion.
Judge Nancy Torresen traced Darcie’s course to her present position. Starting as the only child of devoted parents, picking potatoes, playing sports, working hard, becoming Queen of The County, graduating from Bowdoin College and the University of Maine School of Law, and becoming an Assistant District Attorney in Penobscot and Piscataquis Counties before becoming an Assistant United States Attorney in 2002. Judge John McElwee spoke movingly about his daughter.
After taking the oath, Darcie’s remarks in response were gracious as she thanked the many people who had made her ascension possible, including her parents, children, and the several childcare providers present who took care of her kids while she did her demanding job. Among the priorities she identified and alluded to were continuing the approach to school violence that I started and working with the governor and state colleagues on the drug crisis, using more of a harm reductionist approach.
I was struck by a number of points of comparison between Darcie’s installation and mine four years before. I hope that my ceremony was as full of affection and goodwill. I am one of three boys who was born and raised in and around New York City. I graduated from Wesleyan, she from Bowdoin. We were both career prosecutors.
My father’s friend and classmate, The Reverend Sidney Lovett of Holderness, New Hampshire, provided a benediction in which he described the connection between our families. Both he and Reverend Blunt attended Yale Divinity School.
In my remarks, I explained my unlikely path to the position, and described my concerns about the crisis of confidence I felt we as a country were in because people either didn’t understand or had lost faith in their institutions. My priorities for the U.S. Attorney’s Office included doing our job to prosecute cases and better explaining ourselves to the public.
As members of the executive branch, our role as United States Attorneys is to help the president exercise his executive authority and take care that laws be faithfully executed. That is the power to implement federal law in the form of the constitution and acts of Congress. It has grown as our country, federal law, and the federal administrative apparatus have gotten larger and more complex, but it is not unlimited. It entails a certain amount of discretion where the law applies and explicitly allows, and where the law applies but requires a limited amount of interpretation.
During my time as U.S. Attorney responsible for executing federal criminal law in Maine, I emphasized deterrence. I expect that Darcie will emphasize treatment. I tried to take a harder line in drug and immigration cases than I expect Darcie will. But those differences do not make either of us un-American. They are within the range of differences in emphasis that our system accommodates. They are insignificant compared to the values we share, such as belief in the rule of democratically-made law.
My U.S. Attorney colleagues Richard Donoghue, Byung Pak, and John Durham are emblematic of that belief. Pak resigned in the face of pressure to investigate Georgia’s election results. Donoghue resisted similar pressure at the national level.
Notwithstanding the partisan scorn that has been heaped upon him, Durham has been pursuing in a professional and workmanlike manner his mandate as special counsel to investigate intelligence and law enforcement activities related to the 2016 presidential campaign. He has exposed concerning information in the process.
They are examples of the finest traditions of our republic.
Photo: Library of Congress